Why Pakistan Is a Bigger Worry Than Afghanistan

In February 2006, Army historian Conrad Crane handed out green stones with red veins in them to 136 experts gathered to discuss irregular warfare. He explained to them that what they were holding was coprolite—fossilized dinosaur excrement. "This, Crane warned, was what he didn't want the new counterinsurgency manual to be: a new polishing of old crap." Washington Post senior Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks retells this story in his new book, "The Gamble." The meeting itself is one of many moments orchestrated by a small band of people who revised the U.S. plan in Iraq, and paved the way for the surge. NEWSWEEK's Jessica Ramirez spoke to Ricks—author of the best-selling "Fiasco"—about his book and the future of U.S. military strategy in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Your book starts with the Haditha massacre. You call it the end of "the first misbegotten phase of the American war in Iraq." Why is that?
Thomas Ricks: It comes to an end in Haditha because the Marines kill 24 women, children and men. The entire chain of command, when finally asked about it, said that it was routine stuff. I only found out after the book was published that the Marines didn't even file a SIGACT. That's short for a Significant Action Reported. The killing of 24 civilians wasn't seen as significant enough to report. This is so at odds with basic counterinsurgency theory, which is "don't focus on killing or capturing the enemy. Focus on protecting the population." If Haditha occurred today, it would shock the entire U.S. military establishment and there would be a swift response. [Back] then it took months and the intervention of journalism to call the situation to the attention of top commanders.

A large part of the second phase of this war revolves around the surge, which many of Gen. David Petraeus's military colleagues didn't believe would work. What did the surge actually change?
People think we put a few more troops in and everything changed. What people don't understand is that the spring of 2007 was arguably the most difficult phase of the war so far. For months, U.S. killed-in-action numbers go up. Eventually it did lead to a turnaround in that security improved and violence decreased. That said, the surge failed. When you judge the surge on its own terms, it was not just about improving security. The second, more important goal was to improve security in such a way as to lead to a political breakthrough. Here we are in the late winter of 2009, and not a single one of the basic questions facing Iraq before the surge was solved during the surge. No. 1 is how to share oil revenues. No. 2 is the future shape of Iraq. Is it going to be a loose confederation of different groups or is it going to be a tightly controlled country with a central government. What is the basic relationship between the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds? What about Iran? All of these are potentially violent problems. This is why Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker says to me at the end of my book, "The events for which the Iraq War will be remembered probably have not yet happened."

Why did it take so long to understand that we needed to shift gears?
I wish to God I knew. This is one of the great tragedies of the war. By the time [President] George Bush started acting like a commander in chief instead of a cheerleader in chief, we had been fighting for four years. That said, when Bush finally stepped up in December 2006 and January 2007, when he picks leaders like Petraeus and [Gen. Raymond] Odierno to command, when he decides on the surge, I really think that is his finest moment.

You say the "biological parent" of the surge was not Petraeus but General Odierno. That's a break from how you saw him in "Fiasco." What led him down this path?
There's no question that Odierno is one of the villains of "Fiasco." I hang around his neck blame for command of a division deemed to have inflamed the insurgency. The Odierno of this book is without question one of the book's heroes. [Why Ordierno changed:] First, Odierno's son was badly wounded in Iraq. A rocket-propelled grenade took off his arm. I think that has a devastating effect on any parent, but especially one commanding in Iraq. After his first Iraq tour, he also had the interesting job of being the Pentagon's ambassador to the State Department. I think that gave him a new view of how the State Department viewed this war, how the CIA viewed this war, how the National Security Council worked. So, he [develops] perhaps a different perspective of the war and also knows where the levers of power are in the American government. This allows him to get around his bosses when he goes back to Iraq in 2006 and realizes this thing is going to go down in flames on his watch. He doesn't want that to happen. So he uses retired general Jack Keane as his conduit to the White House and talks to GeneralPetraeus offline because he isn't out there yet and they turn in a whole revision to the U.S. approach to the war.

You've suggested this war is far from over. How long might we have substantial forces there, and what does this mean for President Obama?
What it means for President Obama is that Iraq is going to change Obama more than Obama changes Iraq. He came in promising to have all combat troops out of Iraq in 16 months. That's not going to happen. As Odierno tells me in the book, it will be hard to get below 35,000 troops through 2015.

What does this tell us about what we can expect from Obama in Afghanistan?
When Obama talks about taking troops out of Iraq, he's not departing from Bush. The Bush administration consistently thought it could drawdown the troops. The original plan was to be down to 30,000 troops by the fall of 2003. Here we are five years later with five times that number. I worry that Obama may be repeating one of the mistakes of the Bush administration, which was persistent, unwarranted, optimism about Iraq. What that means for Afghanistan is that he may not have as many troops or resources available as he thinks. The one bright light I see is that the administration is talking about this as the Afghan-Pakistan war. That's significant because it recognizes the reality that in that war, the more important of the two is Pakistan. As a friend of mine, Andrew Exum, who writes the blog Abu Muqawama, puts it, "It's hard to win a war in Afghanistan when the enemy decides to fight it in Pakistan."

You recently said NEWSWEEK might have gotten it wrong when we said that Afghanistan could be Obama's Vietnam. Why?
We could lose Afghanistan, and it would be bad but it would not present an existential threat to this country. If you "lose Pakistan"—and by that I mean if Pakistan collapses or is taken over by Islamic extremists—you face the prospect of Islamic extremists having nuclear weapons. That's Al Qaeda's dream. It's our nightmare. That's why Pakistan is Obama's potential Vietnam. There's no clear solution there. What you may try to do for several years is simply manage it. Kicking the can down the road in both Iraq and Pakistan is not an emotionally satisfying outcome, but it may be the most mature and even best scenario we can come up with.